The Mynabirds: The New Revolutionists Week at TVD

In tandem with the release of The Mynabirds’ brand new LP Generals, front woman Laura Burhenn has embarked on an ambitious portrait project entitled “The New Revolutionists,” the purpose of which is to “pay tribute to the vast web of women who do various types of important work: artists, community organizers, doctors, mothers, women who embrace their lives and work to help and empower those around them. It is an awareness campaign for non-profits, women and works of art that empower.”

The week we’re turning TVD over to Laura to delve a bit deeper into the lives and inspirations of five of the many revolutionary American women the project serves to spotlight who are making a difference in their own communities across America. —Ed.

“I met Nicole (aka Nico) Childrey and Rebecca Marie Miller separately, but around the same time — approximately 2004 or 2005, I’d say. Nicole was playing drums in a New York-based band called Come Down; they were playing on a stage at ARTOMATIC. I met Rebecca in the bathroom before her old band (Brave the Day) and my old solo band shared a stage in Baltimore at a venue that has since closed; as we changed into our dresses and boots and applied eyeliner in the mirror together, I knew we were gonna be friends for life. Same with Nico after I’d spent some quality time with her. Sometimes you just know.

Anyway, as we all traversed through various bands and tours and big life moments, our paths crossed again and again. And now I’m so incredibly proud to call them both bandmates in the Mynabirds. They are both ridiculously talented musicians — Nico plays so tight in the pocket, it feels like perfectly worn-in jeans that fit your soul to a T (if that makes sense); Rebecca’s voice is one of my favorite in the world, her solo songs will make you weak in the knees.

But besides that, they’re bold and kind-hearted ladies who are hilarious, generous, adventurous, and somehow still pretty easy-going despite the trials and tribulations of tour life. When they’re not on the road with the ‘birds, they’re busy ladies: Nicole is a freelance music journalist and runs the website East Nashville, With Love; Rebecca is busy working on a solo record and contributes to so many other bands as well. I thought it’d be fun to turn to questions on them, let you get to know them both a little better. Here goes…”

What do you think makes someone revolutionary, particularly in America in this chapter in our history?

NICOLE: I think being revolutionary is probably the same as it’s always been — ultimately, holding your beliefs close, doing rather than just saying, keeping a mind on recognizing what you think is wrong, and acting in a way that runs counter to that. I think speaking out will always be important, but just doing, day to day, what you believe is the right thing to do, with little fanfare, can be a really powerful thing.

That might seem vague, and I guess it is. But there are so many ways to just do good. And I love to talk about women being capable of anything and everything, but when I watch women around me showing that — maybe starting their own thriving businesses, succeeding in traditionally male-dominated fields — that puts an exclamation point on the statement.

REBECCA: I’m particularly interested in the health crisis in America. When it comes to nutrition, our citizens are under educated and overweight. “All you can eat” is the norm, and it’s more affordable to purchase packaged foods than it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a travesty. I am inspired by the urban gardening and community supported agriculture initiatives taking place in our cities and surrounding rural areas. Our local farmers are revolutionaries, despite the fact that they’re really just leading us back to our roots in agriculture. It IS possible to thrive rather than just stay alive, no matter what your income is.

Buy local, buy organic! Better yet, bury your hands in the soil, grow a vegetable, and reconnect to the food that nourishes your body. We are poisoned everyday by pesticides, hormones, and preservatives in our food, but by demanding better we can all revolutionize our own standards for living. On this front, to “be the change” is truly an attainable solution.

Who are some revolutionaries who have inspired you in your own life?

NICOLE: I think about music a lot, for obvious reasons, so I’ve been inspired by the many women who hacked away at this industry years back to push things toward where we are now, when I get to benefit from the ground they broke. But on a simpler level, I think I was particularly inspired by the young guys I played music with in my teens. When people made ignorant comments at shows, when I was belittled by people who I guess still thought it was weird for a girl to be playing, they took up for me. It just underlined how much they believed that I deserved to be treated the same way they were. That probably seems like a trivial thing to point at, but those experiences, as a young woman, made me understand that I wouldn’t always feel out of place pursuing what I love to do.

REBECCA: My friend Calliope, along with her partner Jimmy, started a micro farm called “The First Muse” in Dauphin, PA in 2008. They built their high tunnel infrastructure (similar to a greenhouse) from the ground up, having had very little prior experience with sustainable micro farming beyond a 30×30 foot garden space in their previous home. These two both work full time jobs from their home, Calliope as an online professor of Humanities, Culture, and the Arts, and Jimmy as an IT consultant to local businesses. Despite their already full schedule, they have turned their gardening hobby into a way of life, and offer CSA packages all year round. Everything they produce is organic, right down to the free range Black Copper Maran chicken eggs, which are just about the most beautiful burgundy colored eggs you’ll ever see. Visit “The First Muse” at www.thefirstmuse.net

When I first asked you to be a part of this project, you were both a little hesitant, saying that you didn’t necessarily see yourselves as revolutionary women. Did being nominated as a “New Revolutionist” change the way you view yourself or things you do in your daily routine? Did it change the way you view others in your own lives?

NICOLE: The idea made me sit with the question of whether I do or have done anything revolutionary. And in the greater sense — the bigger definition of that — I have to go with no, as an individual. But I do think that just being a part of the growing group of women playing and touring is something I can feel pride in. The larger that group is, the easier it is for young girls to see themselves in that place, if they feel drawn to it. Maybe that sense I had as a teenager — like it was weird to like what I liked, like it wasn’t feminine to play drums with a bunch of boys — doesn’t crop up as much.

REBECCA: You know, I don’t think that it did change how I perceive myself. I don’t think that I’ll ever be a particularly politically minded person. The dreamer in me is too easily frustrated, too easily discouraged. However, I am called to action simply by the choices that I make in my daily life. I celebrate social diversity. I prefer to be generous when I am able, in both tangible and intangible ways. I will go out of my way to make healthy choices for my body, for my loved ones, and for our planet. I will smile at a stranger in hopes that they will pay that smile forward. And more importantly, I just want to cut the bullshit. I say what I think when I think it, with hopes that I’ll be heard and understood, but without apology for my sincerity. I don’t know if that makes me a revolutionist, but it definitely makes me happy.

The Mynabirds are kind of a rarity in the rock world, being a band comprised mostly of women. Do you feel like there’s parity of men and women in music these days? Have there ever been times when you feel like you were treated differently as a woman on the road?

NICOLE: I’ve touched on this a bunch here, I guess because feeling different was something that really branded onto me as a younger woman. Being treated differently happened a lot then — getting asked why I was carrying my boyfriend’s drums, staff folks at clubs intimating that I was lying about being one of the people playing, because I was a girl. It’s petty stuff, but it stings when you’re young, and it compounds over time.

I’m really energized by playing with other women, particularly the ones I currently play with — the three of us couldn’t be more different, but we have this common passion, and we attack it in our own individual ways, with a shared degree of focus and confidence. I feel stronger having these two ladies with me every day. And I feel huge pride walking on stage with them, because they represent to me what I always wanted to be: tough, unafraid, unfettered, passionate, bold, heart-forward. We’ll always be treated a little differently — which isn’t necessarily bad, since we are different. But my experience with The Mynabirds has given me the sense that things have only gotten lots better, way more welcoming. I just feel lucky to get to experience that moving forward.

REBECCA: I suppose I have, in the past, been treated like a “silly little girl” by promoters or sound engineers, but the last time I can recall a situation like that was maybe 10 or even 12 years ago. At the risk of making a back door brag, I don’t really allow too much room for anyone to walk all over me. Of course, that’s resulted once or twice in my being perceived as a “bitch,” but I firmly believe that you can remain polite and professional while still earning respect.

If I may say so (and of course I’m biased), I think you’re both incredibly strong, talented, and beautiful women. And I’m fascinated by how differently you each approach your femininity. In an age when women are still more publicly scrutinized for their looks than men, what makes you feel comfortable/powerful/sexy/feminine onstage? Are there any women performers (past or present) who’s style inspires you? Do you think style and feminism are mutually exclusive?

NICOLE: I’ve been tomboyish as long as I can remember, and I’ve always felt a little awkward because of it. Once I started playing shows, I felt that more so. I think people still do put much more of a focus on female musicians’ looks than on male musicians’, and if you’re not totally put together onstage, you’re judged harshly. That’s intimidating. What I ultimately had to come to: my femininity, physically, just isn’t dainty or delicate, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t feminine.

I look up to women, style-wise, who come off tough but still sexy. Joan Jett’s an obvious example. Neko Case and Annie from St. Vincent are others. Beautiful ladies, all, and very feminine, but I feel like they drink their whiskey neat, so to speak. I don’t think style and feminism are mutually exclusive — I think it takes a lot of strength and confidence to be able to embrace your own individual style, to be comfortable with what it says about you, and to accept that it does say something.

REBECCA: I like this question, and am going to answer it with full disclosure. I have been struggling with my body image a lot lately. In our particular musical community, shall we say the “indie rock” community, being larger than a size 2 is pretty rare. Why is that? I despise feeling self conscious about my weight, my curves, and my breasts. I know that beautiful women come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. I KNOW this, yet I’m often sizing myself up next to my tinier band mates. Totally sucks. I also know that I’m the only one who can quiet that noise in my head, and so I’m working on it. Oddly enough, once I step onto a stage, and I start singing, the only thing that matters is the music. I feel powerful, I feel strong, I feel sexy.

I’ve always admired performers like Patti Smith, who seem to just not give a fuck. I like dresses, putting on makeup, and have a pretty traditional approach to my own feminine aesthetic. That’s how I feel most at home when I’m up on stage, yet there’s a part of me that just wants to say “fuck it” and never wear a stitch of makeup again. Maybe I’m headed there. After all, femininity is certainly not rooted in dresses or makeup, but rather in the power that we women possess as creators of life.

That said, I certainly don’t think that style and feminism are mutually exclusive. Fashion is art, and art is beautiful and innately human. Fashion is not the problem, the media that perpetuates unrealistic body image standards is the problem.

What 5 songs would you insist be on a New Revolutionists mixtape?

NICOLE:

The Mynabirds, “Generals,” because it gets my blood pumping every night, and I like to think it’ll do the same for lots of people.

Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams,” just because it’s a beautiful song, and Stevie Nicks is a powerful, talented woman who’s always inspired me.

John Lennon, “Oh Yoko,” a love song with rollicking piano that always makes me feel like love can be as exultant as you want it to be.

Marvin Gaye, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” a message wrapped in beauty.

Gillian Welch, “Revelator,” I’m not sure I totally know what it’s about, but it feels like an eff-you to judgers and judgment, and I like that. It’s also gorgeous.

REBECCA:

Lauren Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)
Tori Amos – “Precious Things”
Nina Simone – “Sea Lion Woman”
Aretha Franklin – “Chain of Fools”
Patti Smith – “Rock N Roll Nigger”

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The Mynabirds’ Generals is on your local store shelves now via Saddle Creek.

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